By Lisa Talley | firstname.lastname@example.org
The retail cannabis industry is open for business in Fresno. However, the appeals process and delayed inspections have complicated timelines for many dispensaries to become fully operational. While the City of Fresno has ultimately awarded 20 of the available 21 retail permits – the unassigned permit remains open in District 7 – only two dispensaries have opened for business as of the end of July: The Artist Tree and Embarc.
The first round of permit approvals in early September 2021 saw an immediate appeal by city council members of five dispensaries; only one survived – Lemonnade in the Tower District (now called Dr. Green Thumbs). The results of the appeals opened the door to a second round of applications to compete for the four newly available permits. However, as soon as the city announced the next set of permit holders, city council members were quick to appeal again, leading to another public hearing process. It wasn’t until mid-December 2021 that the Office of Cannabis Oversight finally announced that Authentic 559, Embarc, and Beyond Rooted 559 would take their place among the final 21.
While those dispensaries initially appealed by select council members were certainly delayed in preparing their businesses to open, others were affected by different challenges altogether.
Robert DiVito, CEO of Element 7 in District 5 explains that their shift in the opening process results from a complex mix of both awaiting approvals from the Planning Commission and maintaining a vacant building. The dispensary has secured a location but is still waiting to hear back from the city over paperwork they submitted 10-12 weeks ago. Without the requisite approvals, Element 7 cannot begin regularly occupying the building.
“We’d love to be open right now [but] we respect the City’s process,” says DiVito.
As Element 7 patiently waits to hear from the Planning Commission, their building remains vacant and, therefore, has attracted attention from the nearby homeless population.
“We’re doing whatever we can to work with local groups and the homeless as individuals as we understand the complexities of the issue locally,” expresses DiVito.
As setbacks and other issues mount, Element 7 is still excited about their grand opening – even if the exact date is still unclear.
“We love launching new stores and recently had some wonderful events take place around our Firebaugh and Mendota stores. Rest assured, any event [we host] will include entertainment, local vendors and partners, community engagement, and amazing deals and special discounts you will only find at Element 7 Fresno,” beams DiVito.
Retail cannabis is a highly regulated industry. Many cities create extensive municipal codes that strictly outline security and safety requirements, daily inventory tracking, and other detailed procedures unique to cannabis. Fresno is no different, nor is it more restrictive. Much of Fresno’s municipal code regarding commercial cannabis mirrors that of other cities – including requiring a “buzz-in” mechanical entrance to a lobby separate from the sales floor, armed security, and storing cannabis products in a locked vault. And while cities enact rigorous regulations, dispensaries must also ensure they meet requirements at the state level. Retail cannabis stores must satisfy an extensive checklist by obtaining approval from state and local governments throughout the multiple stages of the build-out process. Winning a permit in any city is merely the beginning, and dispensaries face many hurdles before making it to opening day. It’s no wonder that in Fresno, grand openings are currently few and far between.
However, undeterred by the loss of their second permit in the Tower District, The Artist Tree has rocketed through their store’s build-out, beating everyone else to the finish line and officially opening their doors on July 11. Located at Palm and Nees, The Artist Tree has been pleased with the response from the community. Co-owner and co-founder Lauren Fontein states they’ve had an overwhelmingly positive turnout thus far.
A combination of art and cannabis, The Artist Tree proclaims to highlight the natural synergy between the two by doubling their sales floor as an art gallery. Every three months, The Artist Tree rotates its exhibit to showcase a new local artist and has even become an official Arthop venue. All proceeds from the sale of any artwork go back to the artist. So, customers can explore both art and an extensive collection of more than 800 cannabis products.
While The Artist Tree holds title as the first Fresno dispensary to open, others are soon to follow. Fresnans can expect to see more cannabis storefronts popping up one by one over the next few months as management teams overcome setbacks. It may not have been the explosion everyone hoped to see, but a thriving new industry in California’s fifth largest city is well on its way.
SOCIAL EQUITY CANNABIS
As Fresno begins to blossom as a competitor in this emerging market, it is crucial that consumers remember why and how legalized cannabis ever became possible in the first place.
For decades, the government waged war on drugs that was massively unsuccessful while negatively and disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities. Yet, during cannabis criminalization, cannabis advocates continued to innovate and pioneer new cultivation and manufacturing techniques that are at the foundation of the current industry. Their research, work, and advocacy paved the way. However, rather than celebrate them, many were incarcerated and served/continue to serve extensive sentences for doing the same thing that allows others to accumulate wealth today.
Recognizing the inequity and ensuring compliance with the voter-approved Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), the State of California implemented the Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions. The program’s purpose and intent are to further AUMA’s “calls for regulating cannabis in a way that reduces barriers to entry into the legal, regulated market.” Local municipalities may apply for funding that aims to help support social equity applicants and licensees in their jurisdiction. The City of Fresno successfully obtained a $1.2 million grant for the 2020-21 fiscal year.
Cities that allow commercial cannabis often have exorbitant application fees that are nonrefundable. The City of Fresno requires nearly $8,000 for its application fee and an additional $13,391 for a Conditional Use Permit once a business obtains preliminary approval. These costs do not consider the building rentals an applicant must pay while it awaits the city’s decision or the fees associated with obtaining the requisite state license. Such fees create barriers that ensure only large companies can compete.
Social equity programs are designed to level the playing field by waiving or significantly reducing fees and allowing equal access to a highly lucrative market. The program is typically reserved for those from communities historically impacted by the War on Drugs, with a past conviction for a cannabis crime, or both. The City of Fresno has reserved at least three of the 21 permits for social equity applicants, but no more than six. So far, the city has awarded five permits to social equity dispensaries: Fresno Canna Co., Traditional Fresno, Viola Fresno, Beyond Rooted 559, and Roeding Leaf.
Still, more social equity cannabis businesses are expected to arrive under the ‘microbusiness’ and ‘cultivation’ license designations. The 21 permits at the center of the Fresno dispensary conversation refer only to storefronts. More permits are available to cultivators, manufacturers, testing facilities, and microbusinesses (small operations seeking to cultivate, manufacture, and sell products under one roof). The People’s Fresno is one such social equity applicant that successfully obtained preliminary approval for a microbusiness license.
Consisting of Cesar Casamayor, Gidai Maaza, and Shawn Robinson, the team is also awaiting approvals from the city and Planning Commission before becoming operational, but hope to begin the hiring process within 6-8 months. Once open, The People’s Fresno will cultivate (grow) cannabis and provide packaged flower, pre-rolls, and trim (stem and leaves) for soil fertilization that will be available locally and statewide.
“We will be selective in creating opportunities for businesses with a strong economic development background that benefits the community of [Fresno],” expresses the team.
The People’s Fresno is passionate about investing and uplifting disadvantaged communities, especially through the legalized cannabis market.
“We’ve always understood [cannabis’] leverage as an economic development tool as well as its medicinal powers,” explains The People’s Fresno. “We believe our local communities most impacted by the War on Drugs and its generational damage should be leading both the direction of funds [and the] participation and profits in this industry.”
For The People’s Fresno, the “social equity” title is more than just about getting a foot in the door – it’s about rebuilding communities. The People’s Fresno plans to create pathways that allow access to capital through small innovative programs that promote community engagement and upliftment. Ten percent of their net profits will go towards funding these initiatives.
Soon, Fresnans and Central Valley residents will have an expansive catalog of cannabis brands, storefronts, and products vying for their attention. However, consumers, just as with most anything else, can choose how and where to spend their well-earned money. For those concerned with where their money will go and what it will help to support, The People’s Fresno explains what it means to choose a social equity brand or business:
“It means to pay homage to the folks who lived and died for this plant, and who passed along deep knowledge of the plant to the next generation … it means social and economic justice … giving those who’ve been disparately impacted by the War on Drugs an opportunity to build wealth for their families and communities.”